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There is always a connection but, if the link has never been made before, nobody knows it’s there.”
–Scientific historian James Burke

In the typical American school, children are taught history in a similar fashion.  Since time is a one-way street (unless you’re on Quantum Leap or some other time-travel show), events have a ready-made timeline to be placed upon, making teaching the subject as easy as A, followed by B, followed by C.  We’ve all been through this in our lives, and most people generally learn about and relate to the world in this linear fashion.

Then there’s British technical historian James Burke.  When he sees history, especially the history of science, he doesn’t see just a straight line of dots, each representing one stop on a line of invention.  He sees a web of Connections.

Originally seen on the BBC, Connections debuted on American television on PBS stations in 1978.  Rather than the dry, pedantic scientific dirge many had expected out of pure documentaries, Burke’s impish way with words and surprising methods of jumping from one topic to another allowed viewers a new way of seeing traditional science.  Connections was a globe-trotting adventure through history, and Burke’s topics ranged from ancient Egypt and Greece to NASA and rockets… and the best part was, they could be in the same show, because Burke didn’t use the old linear way of storytelling.  He was the one presenting the Connections you never learned about in school.

To Burke, history is not just the path of a ball as it rolls inevitably downhill from the past to now.  It’s more of a crazy pinball, with ideas bouncing to and fro, and success in one arena ultimately causing success in a far different one, with luck and happenstance having as much to do with advancement as planning and preparation.  The right mind, in the right place, with the resources and ability to perceive a new way of doing things was much more important than all the libraries and laboratories in the world.

this little machine affected millions

In his first episode, Burke starts out with the stories of numerous New York residents from 1965, each involved in various parts of life.  There’s a mother-to-be in the midst of giving birth, a subway train full of workers on their way home, and the typical bustle in the “city that never sleeps”.  And then, he shows us how one simple gadget could turn everyone’s lives upside down.  A trigger relay, part of an electrical line in upstate New York, was overloaded and sent electricity to another line… which also became overloaded, and a chain reaction started.  Within moments, millions of people were without power.  Hospitals were without light, and life-saving machinery (which had been taken for granted) was useless.   Subways and traffic, and essentially life as normal, ground to a halt in a darkened city.

Burke uses this event to show how fragile our technological ecosystem is, and how dependent upon it we’ve become.  Few of us have the ability to fix the problem, we simply rely on the fact that someone out there knows what the problem is and they will fix it for us.  But in some future calamity, could any of us really take care of ourselves if the electricity were essentially gone… for good?

In a potential tomorrow where a more permanent disaster occurs, computers and phones would be useless, cars will only go as far as there’s gas, and food won’t be available unless you know something about its growth and rudimentary agriculture.  Burke shows us we’re mere months (if that far) from a pre-industrial agriculture age, and that’s assuming we have access to a horse and plow.  We’ll have to rebuild the technological world again.  And this is where it gets interesting….

“Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future?  Because there is nowhere else to look.”
–James Burke

Through the 10 episodes of Connections, Burke shows (through both recreations and travels throughout the world) those moments where science and humanity changed, and the oddities that allowed the advancements to happen. Napoleon and his troops actually were important to the development of the computer!  Here’s the story:  In his conquests of the world, French troops in Egypt took a liking to finely woven silks, creating a fashion craze back home.  Local merchants developed a method to weave the intricate designs using perforated paper patterns to control their mechanical looms more precisely.  American engineer Herman Hollerith adapted the paper roll to a more portable and interchangeable method, a series of punch cards, which could be used to quickly calculate numbers.  And finally, the first computers were developed using punch cards to represent various functions and allow for a wide variety of information to be manipulated with simple holes on the cards representing a large variety of alpha-numeric characters.  From Napoleon to the early ’80’s, in just a few steps, but who knew silks in Egypt and an invading army would lead to you being able to read this in your own home on your monitor?

Even an adventurer like Columbus was lucky enough to have a newly popularized style of painting and art be instrumental in convincing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to give him the ships to find a “shortcut” to China.  Previously, important items in a painting were either larger, or higher up (as in “closer to God”).  The burgeoning idea of “realism” in art, including the use of a “vanishing point” for perspective, was used to convince the royalty that there really was something beyond the horizon, and Columbus believed he was the man to find the long-sought path to the Orient.  Just because the riches of the New World were found instead only means Columbus didn’t actually find what he was looking for — he found something better.  That’s what Connections is all about.

One of Burke’s main theories is that people created the advancements, not because they knew what would happen, but because of more immediate concerns.  Profit, personal theology, individual social mores, and simple curiosity are much more potent than any brilliant thesis about building rocket ships or combustion engines, and those likely wouldn’t exist without so very many inventions by others along the way.  The Dutch traders didn’t have plastic in mind back in colonial days, but their search for a method to keep their perishable cargo fresh led to the building blocks that gave us everything from DVDs to Tupperware to heat shields on space capsules.  Those are the kinds of Connections Burke presents, and they are unlike any taught in the vast majority of schools.

“Besides making the material accessible, this kind of approach teaches people that they’re not stupid. Everybody has a hundred billion neurons, so did Einstein.”
–James Burke

Like all good teachers, Burke in Connections is not teaching you “what” to think, but teaching you “how” to think.  And the radical presentation of Burke is that ALL things are, in some way, interconnected, just as each of the millions of people in New York that day all suddenly had one small piece of machinery that connected them, even if they didn’t know what it was.  No one creates ideas in a vacuum; they simply utilize what has gone before, what they are familiar with, and then make a small change or adaptation in some way that sometimes revolutionizes society.

Knowledge, in the past, has always been the province of those in power.  Even the idea of literacy amongst the masses is relatively new, if you take the historical view.  Human history encompasses thousands of years, the printing press only hundreds.  Access to knowledge, and the ability to use it proficiently, is the way for humanity to either grow or be left behind.  And a new way of learning is necessary if that’s going to happen.

Burke saw this, even a generation ago when Connections premiered.  Home computers and instant communication with smartphones were still fanciful dreams back then, and yet Burke realized that a revolution in learning and information not only was taking place, but that it HAD to take place.  The rapidness of change and growth of knowledge was proceeding at an amazing rate (and it continues to do so today).  The old linear model simply couldn’t stand up to the pace, and significantly specialized knowledge would simply be beyond the ability of most to acquire… unless a new model was developed.

“The so-called technology revolution will enfranchise people because it will make material accessible in this webbed, networked way I’m trying to do on these programs.  This approach invites people in because it’s easy.  You don’t need a Ph.D.  In fact, we’ve got to stop teaching people to have Ph.D.’s.  Specialism and reductionism was fine up to yesterday, but it will not do for the future.”
–James Burke

Long before the pervasiveness of the World Wide Web, James Burke imagined a similar construct for this necessary new way of learning and thinking.  Like hyperlinks in a webpage, links between similar ideas can be established in a non-linear manner, and the modern version of “surfing the web” is a far cry from the kinds of dedicated and specific search for knowledge previously available.  The democratization of the Web experience is almost exactly what Burke envisioned, where a visit through the ideas of history are more like a pinball game instead of a simple slide with a beginning and end.  The unique and almost serendipitous path from idea to idea is strengthened through experience, and new ideas are happened upon by accident, paralleling the way they were discovered in the first place.  This “pinball” effect is the best way to synthesize all the various ideas being developed as we speak with the knowledge we already have, incorporating all we know with all we discover.

Burke, and Connections, was already there three decades ago….  And he’s always been willing to help light the way.

“The key to why things change is the key to everything.”
–James Burke

JAMES BURKE earned his first Master’s Degree in Middle English, and has always believed that his importance was in studying people and not just history.  After teaching in Italy, he became a reporter on the BBC series Tomorrow’s World, and later was the chief presenter during their Apollo coverage, including the first landing on the moon.  His writings for both Time and Scientific American magazines emphasized the human dimension of invention over the purely scientific, and he developed his ideas much more fully in both his television presentations and his many books.  Known for his impish sense of humor and delight in puns, he has no problem making fun of himself, and even appeared in, of all things, a country-rock music video parodying his own television persona in Confederate Railroad’s Elvis and Andy.  Now retired from both television and academia, his efforts are put towards development of The K-Web Project, from which the picture above was taken.

“When you read a book, you hold another’s mind in your hands.”
–James Burke

If you want to see Connections, it is available in many ways.  The original episodes are available both in chunks on YouTube, and as a remastered DVD set.  There were two sequel series done for The Learning Channel, Connections² and Connections³, each episode half the length of the original but with a faster pacing and just as many interesting and amazing bounces through history.  Burke used to write a column for Scientific American magazine, and many of those articles have made their way into his books, including companion tomes for his TV series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed.  Other books include The Pinball Effect (a most unique book, in that it was designed deliberately NOT to be read in the traditional cover-to-cover manner), The Knowledge Web, Circles, and American Connections (which uses the signers of the Declaration of Independence as the starting point for each journey).  Finally, there is Burke’s project of The K-Web, an outgrowth of the publication of The Knowledge Web, showing in a more demonstrative form just what kind of learning and growth is available if Burke’s ideas about the World Wide Web are used effectively.

Burke had to travel the world; you now can travel the web!

“We’re on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that’s going to make that [access to knowledge] more possible than ever before.  Or, if that’s not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us that don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind.”

“But maybe a good start would be to recognize. within yourself, the ability to understand anything because that ability’s there, as long as it’s explained clearly enough.  And then go and ask for explanations.  And if you’re thinking right now “what do I ask for”? ask yourself if there’s anything in your life that you want changed.  That’s where to start.”

–James Burke, in the final episode of Connections

We live in what has been called “The Information Age”, where there is more knowledge and discovery going on around us than ever before.  And yet, there are a great many who almost actively disdain the pursuit of science and the gathering of fact in favor of their own small world, collectively acting like an ostrich with its head in the sand, believing they are safe and comfortable.  It’s merely an illusion.  And it’s not that the comfort isn’t there, it’s just that those who act in such a manner would rather not have to do the work involved in learning and gaining the facts discovered every second of every day.  But as James Burke and Connections showed, no one has to learn everything all at once.  Just ask yourself what in your life you want changed…

…and once that journey starts, like the Connections portrayed on-screen, it never really ends.

Vital Stats

10 original episodes, plus two sequel series
PBS Network in America, originally a BBC production in Great Britain
First aired episode:  October 17, 1978
Final aired episode:  December 19, 1978
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  The PBS series was originally broadcast on Tuesday nights, but local PBS stations had the right to air all programs on their own schedule.  In some areas it was paired with other science documentaries like Nova and Cosmos, but in others it was paired with fellow British series Doctor Who.

(A quick aside, just because it didn’t fit in the article:  In Connections, James Burke is almost always seen in the same cream-colored suit throughout the ten episodes.  The reason for this is that the scenes were filmed out of order, in locations around the world, so all the “Paris” shots would be photographed at the same time, no matter what episode they were from.  The same “costume” was used so all the shots would match up in the final editing!!)

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“The study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most of you, unlike any other schooling you have ever known before. You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”
–Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. in The Paper Chase

Hart and Kingsfield

Easily one of the most intelligent series ever on American television, The Paper Chase focuses on first-year law students at a prestigious northeastern university.  The students are in awe… and occasionally in terror… of Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), who teaches their course in contract law.  He is demanding, sarcastic, overbearing, and yet one of the most principled men you’d ever meet.  He holds his charges’ professional futures in his hands, a responsibility he takes extremely seriously.  He’s the best legal mind in the country, and he’ll challenge every single student each and every day to make them the best lawyers possible.  And in addition to learning the law, they just might learn something about life, and about themselves….

The biggest challenge is for new student James T. Hart (James Stephens), who’s left his mid-western home to learn from his idol Kingsfield, and runs afoul of him immediately.  Unprepared on the first day, Hart ends up being “shrouded” by Kingsfield for his inability to perform in class.  Metaphorically, Hart is dead to Kingsfield, proving the point to the rest of the students about the high expectations he has for all of them.  Hart tries to get Kingsfield to relent, but that really isn’t going to work….

Hart:  “Please give me another chance, Professor Kingsfield.  Please don’t keep me shrouded all year long….”

Kingsfield:  “Mr. Hart, you are no longer in high school, nor in college.  You’re in a professional school, a law school, where there is no room for error.  It is my obligation to prepare my students to exist in the most competitive of all worlds… where there is also no room for error.  Good day, Mr. Hart.”

Hart:  “But Professor Kingsfield….”

Kingsfield:  “Mr. Hart.  Can you imagine a lawyer who goes into court unprepared?  And after he’s lost his case, goes crawling to the judge’s chambers to beg for forgiveness, to ask the judge to give him another chance?  Good day, Mr. Hart.

Hart:  “I…”

Kingsfield:  “Good DAY!”

the study group

But Hart didn’t come here to be ignored, and he didn’t really come here just to learn.  He came here to prove his worth, to himself and to Kingsfield.  He forms a study group with other students, including the privileged Franklin Ford III (Tom Fitzsimmons), who is the latest in a long family line of lawyers; and Willis Bell (James Keane), whose disheveled looks and manner hide a perceptive legal mind.  Ford and Bell become Hart’s best friends, and like true friends they often come to each other’s aid when necessary, despite the incredible competition involved with the rigors of law school.

Rounding out the group are Robert Anderson (Robert Ginty), a smooth orator who is as good with the opposite sex as he is in the classroom; Elizabeth Logan (Francine Tacker), who sees the law as a social and political crusade; and married student Jonathan Brooks (Jonathan Sagall), who divides his time between his new wife and the demands of his studies.

Hart finds his way out from under Kingsfield’s “shroud” (in one of the best sequences of the series, the finale of the pilot episode), and begins his journey through both law and life, learning all along the way.  His friends do the same, and each of them have moments when they fall, some further than others.  One student doesn’t even last the year, others struggle, and together they all do what they must to find a way through.

Intimidating as ever

The series showed flashes of brilliance, especially when CBS didn’t get in the way of the intelligence.  There were a few episodes where the drama turned into a bit of melodrama, focusing instead on the private lives of Hart and company instead of their studies and how their schooling (and Kingsfield) affected them.  (Notoriously, Houseman even refused to appear in one episode, citing its poor writing and plot… but then, when you’ve been as good as this show usually was, the rare poor episode was rather surprising.  Houseman got his message across, and the “external” plotlines were dispensed with in favor of the regular characters and their “trials”, both legal and interpersonal, as framed by their study of the law.  Don’t mess with Professor Kingsfield….)

Kingsfield teaches contract law, which is appropriate since The Paper Chase is really a portrayal of the implied contract between students and their teacher.  Knowledge is exchanged for performance, with the understanding that either party withholding their part would make the experience meaningless.  The cases used in the classroom are real ones, and they usually reflect in some way on the personal conflicts of the students.  Contracts are about fulfilling obligations, perceived and real expectations, agreed terms, and reward and compensation for performance.  That’s not just classroom theory or legal-speak, it is how people live their real lives… and real life is what Kingsfield demands that his students prepare for every single day.

Kingsfield has a measured presence, with no tolerance for fools or excuses, and permits himself none as well.  He wants his students to become even better than they think possible, and makes sure that they realize the price of failure.  There’s a difference between being a tyrant, and demanding the best, and Kingsfield only seemed like a tyrant to those who would prefer the easy way.  To those (like Hart) who want to be the best, there’s the unspoken “contract” between student and teacher to live up to, and therein lies the drama.  Because Professor Kingsfield is a man you didn’t dare disappoint.

Ford, Hart, and Bell

There’s a challenge to the students… and there’s also a challenge to the viewer of The Paper Chase.  This show doesn’t have car chases, or cops finding a killer.  The Paper Chase celebrates intelligence, and the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is worthwhile in and of itself.  It shows learning as a noble goal, and that people’s lives could (and would) change because of it.  How many “entertainment” shows in the history of television can say that?

“Mr. Hart.  Here is a dime.  Call your mother, and tell her you are not going to become a lawyer….”
–Professor Kingsfield

Unfortunately, popular television (especially in 1978 when the series premiered) wasn’t exactly known for going hand-in-hand with intelligence.  This was the era when disco was king, and two of the top three shows on television were Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley… and guess what show was scheduled against them?  If you said The Paper Chase, go to the head of the class….

In a rare display of faith, CBS actually gave the low rated series a full season to try to prove itself, and although it was critically hailed, it didn’t really make a dent in the ratings, especially given such popular competition.  The people’s verdict had been returned, and after 22 episodes this case was closed.  However, there might be grounds for appeal….

“This is law school.  The whole point is to argue, to disagree.”
–Hart to Ford

This is where, technically, The Paper Chase breaks the law, not only on this website, but television “law” in general.  I could argue the letter of the law, that the CBS run of the show was only one season, therefore making it eligible for coverage here.  But reruns of the show found a home on, of all places, PBS the following year, achieving rather respectable numbers for the ratings-challenged network.  Others took note, especially then-fledgling cable channel Showtime, which was looking for something to add to their slate of Hollywood movies to make them unique.  The literate cache of The Paper Chase was perfect, so in 1983 (five years after the original series had premiered — actual law school only lasts three) Showtime began airing The Paper Chase — The Second Year.  Two more short seasons followed, with the students graduating in 1985, ending the series.

On cable, The Paper Chase was able to tackle more controversial subjects, including drug abuse, abortion, and senility (which were pretty much taboo subjects on network television back then), and an infusion of new students brought new perspectives and new storylines.  The series won two Cable Ace Awards for Best Dramatic Series, and proved for the first time that there was life after a network run.  (Would that more shows got a reprieve from death row cancellation.)  The “contract” with the audience had been fulfilled, and for once, a series that deserved more than one season actually got one.  Justice had been served.

JOHN HOUSEMAN (Prof. Kingsfield) started his theatre career in a fruitful and occasionally stormy partnership with the legendary Orson Welles,  involving him with both Citizen Kane and the memorable radio production of The War of the Worlds.  Houseman started the drama department at the famous Julliard School for the Arts, and later produced numerous pictures for Paramount.  In 1972, director James Bridges asked him to play Kingsfield in The Paper Chase film, a role for which he won an Oscar (in only his second major movie).  Bridges notes, “Before there was Kingsfield there was John Houseman.  He was the Kingsfield to many of the actors, producers, directors on the American stage today.”  He wrote three volumes of his memoirs (Run-Through, Front and Center, and Final Dress; later combined into an omnibus edition entitled Unfinished Business).  He died in 1988.

JAMES STEPHENS (Hart) is best known (other than his starring role on The Paper Chase) as Father Phillip Prestwick, turning a couple of guest shots into a regular role on the Father Dowling Mysteries.  Other guest parts included Diagnosis: Murder, Matlock, and multiple episodes (and characters) on Murder, She Wrote.  He also directed an episode of The Paper Chase in its final season (we’ll call it his senior thesis!)

TOM FITZSIMMONS (Ford) was primarily a stage actor, appearing in many Broadway and regional productions.  His most significant stage role was in the long-running production of The Elephant Man on Broadway, playing the lead role of John Merrick off and on for two years.

JAMES KEANE (Bell) is an experienced voice actor, doing projects as diverse as Hey Arnold! and Spawn.  He also played recurring roles in both 7th Heaven and October Road, and is still active as an actor today, most recently in an episode of CSI this past year.

ROBERT GINTY (Anderson) and FRANCINE TACKER (Logan) met on the set of The Paper Chase and later married.  Ginty had been a regular on The Black Sheep Squadron, and later segued into directing and producing, including episodes of China Beach, Xena, Nash Bridges, and Charmed, and starring in the cult hit movie The Exterminator.  He died of cancer in 2009.  Tacker was a regular on the series Goodtime Girls, and later left acting and became a schoolteacher at the prestigious Sidwell Friends school in Washington D.C. (which you may have heard of, as it’s the school that President Obama’s daughters attend.)

JONATHAN SAGALL (Brooks) left Hollywood not long after his short stint on The Paper Chase (where he was credited as “Jonathan Segal”).  Sagall moved to Israel, where he’s become a leading movie and theatre producer/director.  His movie Urban Feel (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) won two Israeli Academy Awards, and many of his other prize-winning productions have been featured in film festivals around the world.

The CBS year of The Paper Chase is available on DVD, as is part of the Showtime run.  These are relatively recent releases, so hopefully further episodes will be available in the near future.  The initial “shrouding” sequence from the pilot is on YouTube as well as the show’s opening, and there are a couple of great TV Guide articles (one of which is even written by Houseman himself) about the larger-than-life figure of Kingsfield.  Of course, there’s also the source material of the original movie and book on which the series is based.  (The book is by John Jay Osborn Jr., who was also heavily involved in the series, writing a quarter of the episodes.)

“What I have learned a great deal about is the philosophy of the law as expounded by Professor Kingsfield and the nature of what the law should be in our national lives.  And I believe the popularity of The Paper Chase stems not just from Kingsfield but the whole conception of the law as a dignified, important, and philosophically justifiable function of our society.”
–John Houseman, on the impact of the series and its emphasis on the law

“Law” is really the rules society makes in order to get along.  It constantly evolves and changes as we change, becoming a living, breathing thing — just like the people who make it, interpret it, learn it, and teach it.  So much of our modern society has become about trying to take advantage of the law that we forget why it’s there in the first place.  It is not designed for us to find the loopholes… it is to make sure that we all have a standard to live up to.  Professor Kingsfield set an incredibly high standard for his students, and The Paper Chase set just as high a standard for its viewers as well.  More shows should demand the same, of themselves, and of us.  And, like Kingsfield, Hart, and the rest, we should never settle for less.

Vital Stats

22 aired episodes (CBS) — 37 aired episodes (Showtime) — none unaired
CBS Network (later revived on Showtime)
First aired episode:  September 9, 1978
Last aired episode:  April 24, 1979 (CBS); August 9, 1986 (Showtime)
Aired Friday 8/7 Central?  Tuesdays at 8/7 Central for the CBS run.  Multiple airtimes on Showtime.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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